Indian Wars of the Frontier West

By Emerson Hough in 1918

Lakota Sioux Camp, by John Graybill, 1891

Lakota Sioux Camp, by John Graybill, 1891

The land between the Missouri River and the Rockies, along the Great Plains and the high foothills, was crossed over and forgotten by the men who were forging on into farther countries in search of lands where fortune was swift and easy. California, Oregon, all the early farming and timbering lands of the distant Northwest — these lay far beyond the Plains; and as we have noted, they were sought for, even before gold was dreamed of upon the Pacific Slope.

So here, somewhere between the Missouri River and the Rockies advancing, gaining and losing, changing a little more every decade — and at last so rapidly changed as to be outworn and abolished in one swift decade all its own.

This unsettled land so long held in small repute by the early Americans, was, as we have pointed out, the buffalo range and the country of the Horse Indians — the Plains tribes who lived upon the buffalo.

For a long time, it was this Indian population which held back the white settlements of Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado. But as men began to work farther and farther westward in search of homes in Oregon, or in quest of gold in California or Idaho or Montana, the Indian question came to be a serious one.

To the Army, soon after the Civil War, fell the task of exterminating, or at least evicting, the savage tribes overall this unvalued and unknown Middle West. This was a process not altogether simple. For a considerable time, the Indians themselves were able to offer very effective resistance to the enterprise. They were accustomed to living upon that country, and did not need to bring in their own supplies; hence the Army fought them at a certain disadvantage. In sooth, the Army had to learn to become half Indian before it could fight the Indians on anything like even terms. We seem not so much to have coveted the lands in the first Indian-fighting days; we fought rather for the trails than for the soil. The Indians themselves had lived there all their lives, had conquered their environment, and were happy in it. They made a bitter fight; nor are they to be blamed for doing so.

The greatest of our Indian wars have taken place since our own Civil War; and perhaps the most notable of all the battles are those which were fought on the old cow range — in the land of our last frontier. We do not lack abundant records of this time of our history. Soon after the Civil War, the railroads began edging out into the Plains. They brought, besides many new settlers, an abundance of chroniclers and historians and writers of hectic fiction or supposed fact. A multitude of books came out at this time of our history, most of which were accepted as truth. That was the time when we set up as Wild West heroes rough skin-clad hunters and so-called scouts, each of whom was allowed to tell his own story and to have it accepted at par.

As a matter of fact, at about the time the Army had succeeded in subduing the last of the  Indian tribes on the buffalo-range, the most of our Wild West history, at least so far as concerned the boldest adventure, was a thing of the past. It was easy to write of a past which every one now was too new, too ignorant, or too busy critically to remember.

Even as early as 1866, Colonel Marcy, an experienced army officer, and Indian-fighter, took the attitude of writing about a vanishing phase of American life. In his Army “Life on the Border,” he said:

Brule War Party

Brule War Party

“I have been persuaded by many friends that the contents of the book which is herewith presented to the public are not without value as records of a fast-vanishing age, and as truthful sketches of men of various races whose memory will shortly depend only on romance, unless someone who knew them shall undertake to leave outlines of their peculiar characteristics…. I am persuaded that excuse may be found in the simple fact that all these peoples of my description — men, conditions of life, races of aboriginal inhabitants and adventurous hunters and pioneers — are passing away.

A few years more and the prairie will be transformed into farms. The mountain ravines will be the abodes of busy manufacturers, and the gigantic power of American civilization will have taken possession of the land from the great river of the West to the very shores of the Pacific…. The world is fast filling up.

I trust I am not in error when I venture to place some value, however small, on everything which goes to form the truthful history of a condition of men incident to the advances of civilization over the continent — a condition which forms peculiar types of character, breeds remarkable developments of human nature — a condition also which can hardly again exist on this or any other continent, and which has, therefore, a special value in the sum of human history.”

Such words as the foregoing bespeak a large and dignified point of view. No one who follows Marcy’s pages can close them with anything but respect and admiration. It is in books such as this, then, that we may find something about the last stages of the clearing of the frontier.

Even in Marcy’s times, the question of our Government’s Indian policy was a mooted one. He himself as an Army officer looked at the matter philosophically, but his estimate of conditions was exact. Long ago as he wrote, his conclusions were such as might have been given forty years later.

“The limits of their accustomed range are rapidly contracting, and their means of subsistence undergoing a corresponding diminution. The white man is advancing with rapid strides upon all sides of them, and they are forced to give way to his encroachments. The time is not far distant when the buffalo will become extinct, and they will then be compelled to adopt some other mode of life than the chase for a subsistence…. No man will quietly submit to starvation when food is within his reach, and if he cannot obtain it honestly he will steal it or take it by force. If therefore, we do not induce them to engage in agricultural avocations we shall in a few years have before us the alternative of exterminating them or fighting them perpetually. That they are destined ultimately to extinction does not in my mind admit of a doubt. For the reasons above mentioned it may at first be necessary for our government to assert its authority over them by a prompt and vigorous exercise of the military arm…. The tendency of the policy I have indicated will be to assemble these people in communities where they will be more readily controlled, and I predict from it the most gratifying results.”

Another well-informed army officer, Colonel Richard Dodge, himself a hunter, a trailer, and a rider able to compete with the savages in their own fields, penetrated to the heart of the Indian problem when he wrote:

Indian Attack

Indian Attack

“The conception of Indian character is almost impossible to a man who has passed the greater portion of his life surrounded by the influences of a cultivated, refined, and moral society… The truth is simply too shocking, and the revolted mind takes refuge in disbelief as the less painful horn of the dilemma. As a first step toward an understanding of his character, we must get at his standpoint of morality. As a child, he is not brought up…From the dawn of intelligence, his own will is his law. There is no right and no wrong to him… No dread of punishment restrains him from any act that boyish fun or fury may prompt. No lessons inculcating the beauty and sure reward of goodness or the hideousness and certain punishment of vice are ever wasted on him. The men by whom he is surrounded, and to whom he looks as models for his future life, are great and renowned just in proportion to their ferocity, to the scalps they have taken, or the thefts they have committed. His earliest boyish memory is probably a dance of rejoicing over the scalps of strangers, all of whom he is taught to regard as enemies. The lessons of his mother awaken only a desire to take his place as soon as possible in fight and foray. The instruction of his father is only such as is calculated to fit him best to act a prominent part in the chase, in theft, and in murder…. Virtue, morality, generosity, honor, are words not only absolutely without significance to him, but are not accurately translatable, into any Indian language on the Plains.”

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